What's up with Google's plan to supplant SMS and drive mobile e-commerce?

Ask most people what RCS stands for, and you’ll probably get a blank look. For Google and the others backing this new mobile messaging standard – whose full name is Rich Communications Services – that’s a problem.

To make it a little more awkward for anyone not already steeped in the topic, last week’s RCS World conference, held in Dublin and online by the Mobile Ecosystem Forum, suggested to me that even the Big G and its pals aren’t always sure themselves what they want RCS to be. Is it what the RCS standard defines it as, which is a modern replacement for SMS that supports rich media, or is it a concept of how communications – and especially business-to-consumer (B2C) comms, or ‘conversational commerce’ – could and should evolve?

To some extent it’s both. Much of the interest in RCS (the technology standard) comes from businesses keen to find new ways of communicating with customers and prospects. For example, speakers at the forum cited campaigns where RCS had achieved several times the engagement rate of the SMS equivalent.

Will rich media make for richer mobile e-commerce?

A lot of this advantage seemed to derive from the ability to embed graphics and videos, measure engagement and generally be more interactive. RCS supports group messages, delivery receipts, and sender verification for business messaging, for instance.

Of course, there’s other ways to do rich (or richer than SMS, at least) B2C communications. Many organisations now offer customer support via apps such as WhatsApp, Twitter or Facebook Messenger, say.

A cynic might comment, “But they’re not owned by Google, right?” And yes, that’s true, but they’re also optional for the phone user and (mostly) independent of your network operator, whereas RCS, like SMS, is a standard protocol linked to your phone number and mobile subscription. There’s no separate sign-up needed, just a mobile data connection, so everyone’s got RCS as long as it’s supported by their carrier and their phone.

That last is the real problem, however. At present RCS is Android-only – it’s integrated within Google Messages, Samsung Messages and a few others. But it’s not part of Apple iMessage, and while Android is the majority of the installed smartphone base in many parts of the world, in Europe and North America you really need iPhone support too.

The puzzle is how to get Apple on board

It was little surprise then that one of the commonest questions at RCS World appeared to be the largely unanswerable one: “When is Apple going to support RCS?”

The most interesting response to that question came from conference guest speaker and former political strategist Alastair Campbell. He pointed out that getting Apple on board is an ambition, not a strategy. In such a case, he said, “A strategy needs to be an argument that makes them feel they have to be involved, that they can’t do without it.”

For Google, the MEF and others, this is awkward. Not only does RCS need a better name (ones tried by carriers include Advanced Messaging, SMS+ and Messaging+), it also needs compatibility with the iPhone, one way or another.

One possibility would be gateway technology – there’s already third-party iMessage apps for Android, but that unofficial route is not viable at carrier level. Another option might be to seek some kind of enforcement of RCS as a legitimate industry standard, just as the EU has enforced USB-C chargers. This might work if the EU saw it having significant consumer and e-commerce benefits, but could take a while.

Commercial conversations: the future of mobile messaging?

So we are back to conversational commerce – the idea that rich media will encourage mobile users to have ‘personalised conversations with businesses’, as Google product manager Jan Jedrzejowicz described it to RCS World. Could this be the argument that brings Apple on board?

At first sight, it just muddies the RCS water, as it’s a concept that could also work on existing messaging apps – including iMessage. The key though is the ubiquity that RCS offers on mobile. Yes, businesses could employ software that supports multiple channels for their commercial conversations, routing over RCS, WhatsApp, iMessage, SMS or whatever as required, but even if it’s technically feasible, it’s clearly not ideal.

The problem is that the needs of other businesses have rarely held much sway with Apple, and I can’t see many iPhone users being desperate to receive yet more commercial messages. It might just be up to the EU after all.

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